Listening - the most underappreciated opportunity in social

It's undeniable that social conversation is driving enormous change in the way companies market and communicate.

It's undeniable that social conversation is driving enormous change in the way companies market and communicate.  But after so much hype and momentum, today's brand stewards are increasingly asking “is that all there is?” when it comes to the pursuit of a passionate social following. 

Experts offering help in the social space are moving from driving “likes” and followers to more traditional business considerations like return on investment.  But it seems the harder companies try, the more elusive genuine social currency becomes.

Do everyday people really want to be friends with a major corporation?  Not very often. Which begs the question – is the whole exercise pointless? Should companies stick to the basics of developing and bringing to market great products and services and let people's experiences speak for themselves?

Happily, there is a very useful role for social conversation in any company's communications arsenal. It doesn't require a sophisticated marketing and PR plan or a slew of dedicated resources. What is it? It's pure and simple – listening.

When we step back and consider the billions of social snippets hitting fixed and mobile screens on any given day, there is actually very little deep dialogue truly happening. The fact is, most people don't take to social media to engage in back-and-forth discussion. Most just want to make a statement to the world. In short, they simply want to be heard.

The examples are numerous. There's the aspiring political commentator who thinks his take on a particular current event is so prescient that legions will be converted just by reading his mere words. There's the super fan that gets a charge out of public declarations of love to the celebrity of the moment. And all too often, there's the irate customer whose frustrations are beyond boiling and social tools offer a way to publicly shake their fist at the object of their ire.

In each of these cases and many others, there is a common thread. People want to know if anyone is actually listening and truly cares. Companies that understand this and orient themselves around authentic engagement can harness real power to make a positive difference via social media.

I see the opportunity divvying up three ways:

Acknowledgement.
Even when a stakeholder is angry, genuinely acknowledging this fact can be very powerful even absent the ability to solve a particular problem or complaint. Just the fact that a cry into the digital wilderness is being met with a response can go a long way with most people.

Learning.
Sometimes a social posting can introduce an opportunity to help someone learn through offering suggestions and tips. If a person is really struggling and your company has the ability to respond with resources, this truly sets you apart from the rest of the social crowd. 

Actual help.
Often, companies can use social listening to actually take a problem and drive it to resolution. At State Farm, our social media team members are located steps away from our executive customer service unit. This is by design. Each day, these team members are working shoulder-to-shoulder, uncovering challenges facing policyholders, and trying to put these customers in contact with the right resources to get things resolved. Not every customer problem can be rectified. But in many cases, we can move things forward in a better direction.

Listening also holds the power to help companies make better decisions and innovate in ways that stakeholders truly appreciate. Basic truths around what companies do well and where they fall short are contained within everyday blog missives, Twitter feeds, and online forum posts. These insights are instantly assessable and they are free.

Only by listening and then converting these learnings into everything from better designs to better decisions can companies fully leverage the true power of the social web. Once companies redouble their efforts to seize on these kinds of opportunities, then all of us will really have something to talk about.

David Beigie is VP of public affairs at State Farm Insurance Company.

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